The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Don’t be fooled by laws, put trust in gospel

Violence is daily in the news with persistent demand for legislation to end crime. Do Lutherans believe laws will solve problems? Remember law-and-gospel theology? This is the Lutheran understanding that separates our theology from cultural solutions for crime.

The theology of law and gospel requires us to focus on the weakness of law (civil and theological) to solve evil and injustice. Looking to forensic law to solve issues fails to see the fundamental problem of human brokenness. Societies define a problem then pass laws. No law can stop violence or crime. No law is a deterrent.

That statement is important. One common argument contends: since a law isn’t a deterrent, eliminate it. The obvious false conclusion: since all laws are broken then all laws should be abandoned. Laws are necessary because humans are frail. The origin of crime, poverty and violence is broken humanity. That can’t be legislated away. 

The assertion “I am willing to submit to a law or a police power to keep peace” sounds reasonable, but history shows submission tends to lead to tyranny. It’s not submission but the give and take of social contract that is the foundation of civil life. Law and gospel reveals human nature as the imperfection in society. 

Hope comes from the gospel, God’s caring for the well-being of humanity and creation. People are empowered to agape or love — caring for the well-being of others — through the cross. The distinction of law and gospel is the dialectic in Martin Luther’s thought. The cross and incarnation revealed the possibility of peace, not the achievement of peace. The law convicts us of our sin and drives us to the gospel.

At the Last Supper we learned that the commandments are fulfilled by loving one another as Jesus loved his disciples and to be servant of all. The gospel is for everyone —John 3:17. The gospel of Christ is righteousness, not as a demand but as a gift to the sinner. Laws can guide, Paul said, but they won’t stop violence or crime. 

We live in ambiguity. Luther says trust the gospel and live with the ambiguity of law. But do not be fooled: we can’t legislate morality or ban certain actions to ensure peace.

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